Burrowing Owl Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Alberta

Ryan Fisher
Erin Bayne
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Approximately 60% of Alberta’s species of birds, fish and mammals are found
within the Grassland Natural Region. Unfortunately, >75% of Alberta’s species-at-risk also inhabit this region and these species are facing increased human development pressures and a changing climate. The Burrowing Owl is one such species that is currently listed as an Endangered species in both Alberta and Canada. This report is intended to provide some adaptation strategies that are focused on management of Burrowing Owls in the face of a changing climate.
The climate envelope of the grassland and parkland regions is expected to expand
northward along with the associated vegetation communities. This would present a
unique opportunity for potential expansion of the Burrowing Owl range in Alberta.
Yet, historical southward range contractions suggest that natural range expansion is
an unlikely possibility. Given that newly suitable habitat may be created, but
Burrowing Owls are not likely to expand naturally, assisted colonization or
reintroductions might be feasible options. Reintroductions into areas further north
than the current Burrowing Owl range, but still within the indigenous range would
carry the least amount of risk and likely highest chance of success. This would help
to increase the geographic distribution of Burrowing Owls so that they are not
clustered in one part of the province and these areas may become more suitable
from a climate perspective in the future. However, assisted colonization outside the
Burrowing Owl indigenous range could also be considered, albeit with higher risks
and the potential need for continuing human-intervention to sustain the introduced
Our research has shown that past extreme rainfall events: (1) increased the chance
that a Burrowing Owl nest will fail completely due to flooding, (2) reduced the
number of offspring as a result of starvation, and (3) reduced the chance that a
burrow was reused in subsequent breeding seasons. Several adaptation options are
presented to manage Burrowing Owls in response to changes in the frequency and
intensity of extreme weather. Other management strategies such as construction of
artificial burrows and targeting conservation strategies in areas with good drainage
in order to prevent burrow flooding would also help to buffer owls against extreme
rainfall. Habitat management promoting an accessible and abundant prey source is
critical for buffering the effects of extreme rainfall on Burrowing Owls. If Burrowing
Owl populations become extremely low, supplemental feeding to help Burrowing
Owls during inclement weather could be considered as a stop-gap management
The management of Alberta’s Burrowing Owls in the face of changes in both average
temperature and precipitation conditions, in addition to changes in the frequency
and intensity of extreme weather events is feasible. However, management of this
species will take a coordinated effort beyond the boundaries of Alberta and Canada.